Sunday, 5 March 2017

Gathering Storm: Fracture of Biel-Tan Part 4 - The Roads Not Taken (Warhammer 40,000 Supplement Review)

So, here we are at the end, with the final question: What needed to be done instead? 

We have added these several times before, discussing potential futures, outcomes, or even highlighting just where everything went wrong for a work. With the case of the Fracture of Biel-Tan though, this was no easy thing, because there was just so damn much of it. While every story up to this point might have undergone multiple changes, supported character moments or even a varied number of sub-plots, none of them reached the sheer eye popping scale of what this book attempted. Whereas the others might have left ideas unfinished or severely underdeveloped, Biel-Tan seemed to be hell-bent on immediately resolving every issue it brought up. It was less of a grand finale than an intergalactic pinball game with the eldar catapulted about as the writers desperately tried to achieve a higher score on a drama meter.

Yes, that was something of a stretched metaphor, so let's make this comparison instead: This was Games Workshop's X-Men: The End. This was their effort to pull an abrupt epic stunt to simultaneously tie-up a thousand unanswered questions, threats and dangling plot-threads while simultaneously setting up an epic storyline for the future. The result is a conflicted and rushed work which fails to do either the characters or the old ideas justice, eventually middling into an unsatisfying and ultimately baffling endgame.

As stated before however, Games Workshop have only themselves to blame for getting themselves into such a mess. Had they not piled cliffhanger after cliffhanger onto the end of each book for the better part of a decade, this might have been coherent and relatively sound in concept. Any single one of them would have served as an effective story given but a little time to truly develop, and that is exactly what we're going to prove today.

This isn't going to be a detailed break-down of how things went wrong. This isn't going to be a stripping down of where the lore went completely off of the rails and to absolute hell. This isn't going to even delve into the madness of the very decision to force multiple abrupt retcons into a tale which had barely started. No. Instead, this i just going to be a brief examination of this work, highlighting each abandoned story in turn and saying "Here, this is how you could have written an entire goddamn book about this."

And yes, we're even going to look into a few retcons while we're doing this.

The Dark Eldar Civil War

Proving once again that it set the gold standard for Fifth Edition lore, Codex: Dark Eldar introduced one of the most intelligent and best handled cliffhangers of any armybook. Rather than offering some tail-end note of a big struggle against insurmountable odds, several pages were devoted to a growing threat surrounding Khaine's Gate. Having protected Commorragh against the relentless threat of a Chaos invasion for millennia, the gate's wards were inexplicably beginning to fail, and impossibly something seemed to be knocking from the other side. 

Vect, being the murderous bastard we all know and love, had prepared for this oddity in advance. He was trying to use it as an excuse to knock off a few rivals while at the same time saving the rest of the city, killing two birds with one stone, before hitting a snag: Lady Malys. Thinking that Vect was behind the act, her forces began entering a shadow war with his own faction even as the gate began to break down.

Everything here was set up for an epic storyline to follow right on from the moment the wards failed. Something which was a cross between a Chicago mob war and the kind of high strung, high tech and high speed battle only the Dark Eldar can pull off. So, rather than forgetting about it as Fracture of Biel-Tan did, why not make it core to the first act if not the whole story.

Have the first opening blows play out as expected. Vect's forces have brought Malys to civil war and there is fighting in the streets, with small groups waging skirmishes against one another even as the Khaine's Gate breaks down. Each tries to find a way to slow if not stop the disaster, but each fails due to mysterious outside interference or odd circumstances. Then, the Gate's chains shatter entirely, and it swings open. The war rapidly becomes a three way conflict as Dark Eldar houses pick sides, each trying to survive the onslaught of daemons pouring through. Many dredge up old and dangerous weapons to counter the neverborn, with some even unleashing slaved monsters they would have kept chained up.

Throughout the growing conflict, parts of Commorragh are lost despite their efforts, with the Dark Eldar gradually being pushed back by the unending tide of foes. With no other choice, Malys presses ahead with a desperate plan to use a grotesque being made of a hundred Pariahs fused together to help seal the breach. She and her retinue fight their way to the Gate thanks to the subtle help from various Harlequin Troupes, and earns a partial victory. She seals the gap, but is trapped on the other side, amid the swarming daemons.

Then, several revelations arise, one after the other. The first is that the Harlequins have been acting to ensure the Gate was breached, and were responsible for halting every effort to secure it. The Masque of the Midnight Sorrow quietly withdrew from the Gate and only now have rejoined the fighting. The other is that the daemons are not simply attacking now, they are fleeing. Within the corrupted Webway, something new arrives, burning so brightly that the lesser daemons about them are being burned away. As Malys is about to die, finally overwhelmed, it fuses with her, tapping into the unique powers she earned so long ago, and transforming her into its personal voice: The Yvraine.

So, what you would end up with is a massed gang war turning into a surprising divine twist, a major game changer among the Kabals. Above all others these are the warriors who have the most reason to hate Slaanesh as much as serve him/her, yet they retain little real reverence for their old gods. So, having someone linked to their past but who could potentially challenge She Who Thirsts and even overcome the Chaos god in time might be enough to convince other Archons to ally with her against Vect, while Vect himself would no doubt try to turn this unexpected change in her favour.

While admittedly a very basic outline, it nevertheless fixes a multitude of existing problems. It ties into older lore without being utterly bound to it, answers a long standing question in relation to Malys' mysterious powers and even gives the Yvraine some much needed establishment in the setting. Rather than a random character added abruptly at the last second, this is someone who has existed for years in the lore, with the sort of ascension which was heavily hinted at in her very introduction. This move would also offer more opportunities for other Dark Eldar characters to become involved rather than being merely shunted aside, and even commentary upon Ynnead's innate skills and how it could reshape eldar society. This is a god who has multiple ways of reviving the dead after all, so in one fell swoop the Haemonculus Covens would lose their previously cushy and very secure place in society.

By simply limiting it to one location, by simply limiting it to one storyline and tying it into existing elements, you have the same basic idea but a much stronger narrative. One with room to breathe and the freedom to explore further concepts behind the god himself upon his revival. Perhaps the Visarch in this case could be Drazhar or even Ahrha, taking the next natural step on their path forwards or seeing a chance for redemption while claiming superiority to his successor. Perhaps the reason Malys' was chosen was less out of purity or being the right person but because she is easily bent to the newborn god's will, or reflects darker urges none could have predicted.

Whatever the case, it would be a chance to truly let the impact of a sudden ascension sink in, and to do more than merely bump off Commorragh in the name of drama.

Eldrad - Exile

One of the bigger events which was brushed under the rug - which is saying something given this book - was Eldrad's fate. Having (supposedly) brought the Craftworld Eldar civilization to ruin, having (again, supposedly) sacrificed billions of souls in a failed gambit for a god they have been retconned never to believe in, he was exiled from Ulthwé. While certainly exceptionally dumb given the rising tide of Chaos, there was some logic to it, even if the execution was poor. Unfortunately, again, what could have been an entire story to itself was reduced to "Oh, and this happened as well!"

So, rather than ignoring the impact, consider how Eldrad's trial could become the core story of this return of Ynnead. While the actual trial itself could certainly be expanded upon, developed and examined as it's made out to be a difficult decision on the Council's part, the result could be the same. Eldrad is to be exiled from Ulthwé to atone for his sins, but not merely cast out into the universe, to instead investigate a disturbance which defies all logic. 

At the moment of his defeat on Coheria, as a billion eldar souls were cast out into the awaiting jaws of Slaanesh, the Seers detected a major change within the Warp. Something emerged, fighting its way clear of the Eye of Terror in a moment of respite, but bereft of the expected taint so often detected among Chaos aligned incursions. As it evades their every effort to scry the location, Eldrad is sent to investigate with any followers who volunteer to join him. It is effectively a suicide mission given the roving fleets of Chaotic warships, and the possible threat of whatever awaits him at the end, but if any Farseer might succeed it would be him. With little choice in the matter, Eldrad agrees. 

Leaving Ulthwé aboard his personal cruiser, Eldrad flees, fights and evades his way about a number of Chaos flotillas. While no match for them in direct battle, his small force is enough to overcome some of their scouts, and eventually learns from a captive slave that the Ruinous Powers are hunting this thing as well, but lack the position sensed by the Eldar. Heading there with all speed, Eldrad soon discovers just why they hunger to find this mysterious object. It is no broken remnant of debris, but the lost craftworld of Altansar. While visibly ruined, with many of its bastions reduced to rubble and even stripped bare of wraithbone, the city-ship is very much alive and hails the approaching vessel.

While dubious of this new arrival and certain that this is a trap, Eldrad decides that this is too good of an opportunity to simply ignore and docks with the awaiting ship. He is greeted upon arrival by the skeletal giant of Maugan Ra and several helmed representatives of their Seer Council. He is alarmed to find that, much like Ra himself, each of them lacks a single conscious mind to link with and only their brief intervention prevents him from withdrawing to his ship. The reason is soon revealed: In order to survive within the Eye, each of them had to sacrifice their bodies, modifying their very minds as they joined the Infinity Circuit en mass, after having altered it to suit their specific needs. The figures he sees before him are little more than remotely piloted wraithbone constructs wearing the armour of ages past and manipulated by the singular hive-mind which has become Altansar's population. 

Eldrad is disgusted at this act, knowing it has the stink of sorcery about it, but each insists that it was essential to resist the corruption of the Eye. It granted them a near immunity to the typical mutations of the Warp, and assisted in cloaking their essence against both the youngest god and her servants. Eldrad is almost ready to leave despite Altansar wishing to join with Ulthwé in an alliance against the Thirteenth Black Crusade, until they mention something of interest. Maugan Ra's rescue was only successful thanks to Eldrad's failure. While Slaanesh held the craftworld within the Eye, desperately grasping to claim the souls within, the souls fed to her while failing to fully summon Ynnead were enough of a distraction to allow them to break free. What's more, they confirm that another power resides within the Webway, and that something survived the disaster.

Despite his reservations, and unnerved by the silent Phoenix Lord, Eldrad speaks with the Seers for some time. He eventually comes to terms with the fact that his sacrifices may well have paid off, and that Ulthwé will need more than his own foresight and vast armies to survive. Joining his forces with Altansar, a plan is formulated to gather strength the they need to bring the prophecy to true fruition. While his own forces will hunt among the Webway for the surviving shard of Ynnead, Altansar will brave the Warp once more by launching a crusade deep into the Eye with its shielded ships. Its mission - Find the Crone Worlds, recover mythical lost texts relating to the Rhana Dandra, and reclaim any of the Empire's legendary weapons which remain uncorrupted.

So, what you have here is a basis for two running narratives to explore some of the underdeveloped areas of Craftworld Eldar lore. One to explore the Webway, shed light on what they thought would happen to Ynnead and lead Eldrad on a more spiritualistic path in his final years. The other, to explore Altansar, the remnants of the Empire, the old prophecy predicted in the last days before the Craftworld fled their heartland, and the weapons of old. Again, this means it is deeply built into a great deal of the old lore with the freedom to build upon ideas or take them in a new direction. The big one would be the nature of Ynnead itself and what form it has survived in, but also what the Eldar Empire might have left behind in its final days. Few such realms have been explored in any great detail, so writers would be free to engage in the rampant insanity of the Warp while delving deeper into the Empire's hedonistic ways.

The Last War of Biel-Tan

So, the above two examples thus far have largely ignored the title. Let's resolve that with this last one. Biel-Tan was, above all else, one of the single strongest bastions of the Craftworld Eldar civilization. Militant, powerful and with a substantial population to fuel its warhosts, it was capable of performing military actions and full scale crusades which few others had the manpower to match. It had fought every kind of foe imaginable despite often favouring the Ork WAAAGHs! and had ten thousand years of near constant warfare to its name. Such a craftworld does not die easily, and that was the single greatest mistake of this entire book.

In the actual Fracture of Biel-Tan, the craftworld met its end with little fanfare. It was destroyed by what was effectively a foe they had been fighting for years beyond reckoning, in a situation they had faced a thousand times before, with little to really help it stand out. The whole thing was truly rushed and the resolution seemed more interested in getting the event over and done with. How could that be changed? By switching out Chaos for a lesser known foe they had only faced a handful of times before.

Rather than the combined forces of Khorne and Slaanesh, imagine if they were facing a Necron Dynasty instead. Not only would this add variety to the battles which - up to this point - had devolved into little more than Everyone vs. Chaos, but also some added legitimacy for any loss. The Necron Lords had fought the ancestors of the Craftworld Eldar in a bloody conflict after all, while most of what Biel-Tan had faced had been little more than a few initial forces still awakening from slumber. Facing a true army, a massed force under a veteran general, would be enough to justify the warhost losing badly enough for Biel-Tan to suffer an invasion.

By all means the story should keep the same start, having the craftworld respond to an assault upon an Exodite World and believing they face Chaos. The initial strikes even give credence to this, with malformed humans serving as attack waves for a more powerful force, and unknown energies laying waste to eldar warriors. Yet, as the battle is joined, a trap is sprung. Rather than merely bumping into an advancing force, this could be a full blown invasion fleet led by Nemesor Zahndrekh, seeking to draw out and trap Biel-Tan's foremost expeditionary force. They attack and what should have been an organised battle devolves into a series of massed hit and run assaults by the eldar, until they are eventually forced to withdraw under the sheer weight of numbers. Matters are only made worse, however, as the effects of Ynnead's botched birthing are felt.

As the Aspect Warriors return to Biel-Tan, the craftworld loses power, becoming adrift in space as its defenses fail. No one can fully explain how, but the Infinity Circuit itself has been largely drained, meaning the vast city ship is defenseless. Worse still, the Necrons are unwilling to merely give up this fight, attacking from both the Webway and a fleet drawn to the location by their advanced scouts. This would be a start towards a major conflict, a series of massive running battles throughout the ship as we see more of the craftworld one street at a time. The sheer importance of these places is often forgotten, as is the fact that each is unique to the world and that any loss is the annihilation of a whole civilization. This would be a chance to display that in terms of Biel-Tan's own unique culture even as it is burned away.

Ultimately the objective would be to let Biel-Tan go down swinging more than anything else, allowing the invading necrons their victory, but ensuring that it is a pyrrhic one. Much of this would come down to the efforts of Biel-Tan itself, but also hints of Ynnead influencing the fight. Perhaps with Harlequins coming to their aid and eventually convincing the remnants of the warhost to abandon a last stand in favour of retreating into the Webway. Or, if need be, by the Necrons themselves accidentally revealing that the very reason they attacked Biel-Tan was to help prevent Ynnead's rise, and deny the new god something at the craftworld's core.

While unlike the other two it is a bit more basic, there's enough of an idea to make it a "part two" of an ongoing story. Something to show battles taking place elsewhere in the galaxy and the dire nature of the times without cheapening the loss of such a place. Better yet however, it could easily be tied into the two previous narratives as an ongoing story, adding another desperate battle to an already grim tale.

More than anything else, each of these really is just to state the obvious: What we got was insultingly simple and so rushed that it barely made coherent sense. If the writers had just stuck with a single idea for most of the book, we could have ended up with something worthwhile or at the very least something epic. The above examples? Those were churned out in one evening by a guy on a laptop between work. I would hope that paid writers could accomplish something far greater without being forced to think it out in their downtime.


  1. So I'll admit that I'm with you with some parts of these, but you lose me in others, so I'm going to offer my suggestions for how to improve them.

    Starting with the Dark Eldar story, you had me until the bit about the grotesque made out of 100 pariahs. Yes I figure that it would be possible to get such a thing with enough years, but it would be like watching an action movie where the villain has a gun made out of diamonds. It's a little too much and I'm not sure how the webway would even react to that many, let alone the Dark Eldar even with their atrophied Psyker abilities since they're supposed to fear the loss of their soul above all else, and destroying somebody's soul is one of the things a Pariah can do (usually with the right materials, as we see with Culexus assassins).
    There's not too much you have to change there however, a frequently forgotten thing is that Commorragh is supposed to be home to many xenos species. Surely Malyse wouldn't find it too hard to hire the muscle to make a push to the gate and maybe then and there she can get possessed by Ynnead and seal it.

    For the bit about Eldrad, since the souls are now supposed to go to Ynnead, I figure he could probably learn about the diety from a Solitaire he could have been working with on his way back to Ulthwe. Solitaires are still claimed by Slaanesh, unlike the rest of the Harlequins who are protected by Cegorach, so if there was something that disturbed this I'd figure they'd know about it, similar to how most other Eldar become aware of when they've attracted Slaanesh's attention (most of those being Corsairs).
    I also figure that aside from Altansar being different (I do like that idea) he could also become aware of life on the Crone Worlds, specifically the ones in the Eye of Terror and who haven't yet had something happen to their spirit stones, since I'd figure that they would be the ones to feel Ynnead's influence first (who knows, maybe Malyse went looking for an artifact that could close the gate and decided that anything of value would be on those worlds since nowhere else seems to have recorded instructions on how to keep the thing closed).

    Finally for Biel-tan, I like the Necron idea, but I'm going one step further because I think in that case the Necrons could be led by an awakened C'tan, one of the ones who managed to either retain or regain their original mind and turned the tables on the Necrons who thought to control it.
    The reason it's attacking the Eldar is rather simple, as a C'tan it's a god, but one of the material plane rather than the warp. They don't like the Eldar and they don't like any warp gods, so if it could prevent Ynnead from getting a hold in the material world then I think it would since C'tan and the warp are like oil and water.
    With that you'd have a reason for why they'd need to summon the Yncarne to Biel-tan, and it would do more than float and frown for the majority of the book. Having it fight and make a C'tan retreat would be a good way to show how powerful it is as unlike the Avatar of Khaine, C'tan are not killed just to show how awesome somebody else is. Managing to fight, injure and scare the C'tan is something that the Yncarne should be able to do, even if the C'tan is individually stronger. Normally the only reason somebody makes the C'tan retreat is either because they manage to hurt it significantly and the C'tan runs away (cowardice in the face of perceived threats being something they always seemed to have) or they'll hurt it enough to damage the controlling devices which cause the Necrons to spirit it away until they can repair those (which wouldn't happen here, and the only exception to these two situations I can think of was the terrible Warzone: Damocles) so having the Yncarne fight it off until the rest of the Eldar can flee shouldn't be beyond the realm of possibility.

    1. Ah, well, the Commoragh one is actually following it on from a previously established plot point. In preperation for the fall of the Gate, Vect supposedly spent the bulk of his power gathering Untouchables and Pariahs to limit the damage. It was never fully revealed what he was going to do to them, but it was known that he was going to use them against the uncoming daemon onslaught, privately keeping them to allow himself to defeat the oncoming tide and further his borderline deification among some members of their society. Having Malys getting her hands on whatever he was creating and using it to try and forcibly close off the Gate seemed like a way of reintroducing that plot and bringing it to a close as needed, rather than just forgetting about it. Also, yeah, i'll admit I had a few interesting ideas involving some of the lesser known xenos species which lurk throughout the city - the Sslyth being the big one of course - but it seemed best to keep things simple as this was a general basis for a storyline rather than going into full details.

      As for the Eldrad one, actually I agree that point surrounding the Solitaire would make a hell of a lot of sense really. It would help him to gain the further information he needs and it ties closely into his personal connection with their people, so it would be a good reason for him to know of certain details that might escape the other craftworlds.

      Okay, yeah, that would definitely be a good twist to keep things going on both sides. On the NEcron side of things - while I did want to give one of the lesser lauded characters a chance to shine - this would be a moment to fall back on their old imagery and give them far more reasons to actively hunt the Craftworld Eldar over rebuilding their empire, while also setting up future stories. With new god emerging and threats like the Yncame being able to fight them off I could see any who retain their own wills seeking to counter this new threat however they could. Overall, I really have nothing to add as it's a great idea for a core storyline.

    2. God what I Love the idea of two different gods fighting eachothers, and with the other books it isnt like the Necrons would steal the attention from chaos either.

  2. I can't tell you how tempted I am to incorporate some of these elements/ideas into the 40k BotL universe.

    I'm curious, what changes have you thought about the development of the Horus Heresy? Or are you satisfied with what we've seen from Black Library and Forgeworld?

    1. Please, you're more than welcome to do so. This really was just a case of looking down something from the past book and penning it down in five minutes or so. They're fairly basic starting points for what could be a much bigger saga.

      As for the Horus Heresy, well, that's a more complicated subject personally, but overall the expansion has been a good one. There are only a few really negative points I can bring up in either case, and even then they usually led into better things. Scars, for example, I personally thought was average but it set the scene for the excellent Path of Heaven. If there is one criticism to make though, it lacks some of the basic perfection of the Index Astartes articles. There's not enough mystery any more, and it seems so much of the old era is being outlined and explained that it has lost some of its magic. It was probably unavoidable, and that expansion has led to great things, but I personally do think that the old role of the Heresy serving as a bedrock for player ideas is something of a lost art these days.

  3. Fair point. You're not the only I've heard who missing some of the mystique of a long-lost age.

    And thank you. I have a solid grasp on Imperium and Heresy lore, but once I leave that bubble my knowledge becomes hit-and-miss. I just don't have the same store of widespread and deep knowledge of the various aspects of the setting as you do. And I want to make the xenos a more diverse bunch in our 40k, along with playing a bigger role/threat in the End Times beyond the conflict being defined largely as Imperium vs. Chaos.

    For example, I have an idea that, in addition to the clans, the Orks are split between two different factions. One faction is descended from the technological legacy of Gorro and is building off that beginning to become a more tech-advanced version of the Orks. The other faction is represented by Ghazghkull and represents a spiritual force as Thraka leads the Orks deeper into religion with the faction overall having more psykers and more esoteric benefits. The two sides are battle bros, to borrow from the rules, but do have two separate visions for the future path of all Orks and will fight over it.

    1. I apologize for the double post and for being off-topic. If there's some other method of communication you would prefer I use, I can. Until then, I have been greatly confused by the opening in Shadow of Ullanor. It's part of the Beast series, giant Ork 'Emperor' threat in M32.

      Here's what has confused me. The opening is clearly written from an in-universe, Imperial perspective. But it references the necrontyr and their tombs. Three times, no less! I thought the Necrons were only known to the Imperium in M41?

    2. I'm not Bellarius, but I do know the answer to this question at least.
      You are correct, the Necrons only became known to the Imperium at large in 897.M41 when they attacked and wiped out the Sisters of Sanctuary 101.

      Technically the Necrons have been around and awake for a lot longer, Trazyn the Infinite for example has been awake since the Great Crusade, however the Imperials did not know this, they did not know the Necrons existed, and if they ever did come into contact with them it was never recorded.

      Personally I think the Beast Arises is a terrible series that's best left forgotten. If you want to do anything with the event my main advice would be to ignore all the books and do an entirely new version.

    3. That's what I thought. Quite the slip-up to find in the first few pages of a novel.

      We are going to do something different with the Beast. Since the Beast creates Prime-Orks, if one is not put off the idea of Ork Primarchs, I believe this would serve much better as an End Times event. The Beast would lead the tech-Ork faction I outlined above, rivaling Thraka's more spiritual/religious Ork faction. I think it makes more sense since the Human Primarchs are making a return, giving them a dangerous xeno opponent outside of the Daemon Primarchs.

      I also want to introduce the Necrons earlier, say, M37, to slowly ratchet up the threats the Imperium faces instead of all of them showing up in tail end of M41.